Saturday, November 17, 2012

Just Because It's Set in Stone...

There is a very important lesson that any family historian, and indeed, any researcher, needs to learn, and that is to not trust any single source of information as solid fact, not even a headstone or memorial.

Just because it's set in stone, it doesn't mean it's a stone fact.

Perhaps just to ensure that I do not become overly confident as a researcher, two examples of why any one source of information cannot be trusted completely (including those engraved in stone) has hit home with me in recent weeks.  The first example is detailed out in my prior blog post:  Solving the Case of the Missing Civil War Soldier, Thor Paulsen Sloan.  For quite some time, I could not determine where my Norwegian-American Civil War soldier from Wisconsin was buried.  I deduced that his remains were unlikely to be lost, because although he was wounded on the battlefield at Kennesaw Mountain in June 1863, he died as a patient in a Union hospital a few days later.  It turns out that the reason I could not initially find the location of his burial plot was because his name and/or his regiment were recorded incorrectly on important sources: the interment record for the relocation of his remains from the Kennesaw Mountain area to the National Cemetery at Marietta, Georgia, and the headstone at his gravesite.

The second recent example was related to me by a presenter at a genealogy workshop I attended earlier this month.  Family History Expo is a large genealogy conference held each November in the Seattle area.  Eric Stroschein, professional genealogist, was speaking on the subject of genealogical proof standard and the importance of using proper sources and documentation during research.  He detailed a story that illustrated why any single fact should not be taken as the gold standard without a reasonable exhaustive search to back it up, using other sources.

A client had hired Stroschein to research a potential family connection with a Confederate soldier who drowned during an early submarine test dive.  The name of the lost soul was one of several etched on a memorial erected in dedication to the submarine crew members, who died in the line of duty.  The surname of the prospective ancestor was rather unique, and this aided Stroschein while searching among censuses, military records, and other sources.  But, although he was able to trace many records for an individual with the same unusual last name, that surname was always connected with a first name different from the one on the memorial.  In the end, Stroschein succeeded in proving, through Civil War pension records and other sources, that the first name of the client's ancestor is incorrect on the memorial.  Now, that was unexpected.

This possibility makes a genealogy hobbyist feel a little insecure, does it not?  To think that information recorded on official documents, or even on solid tributes, such as headstones and memorials, may contain errors perpetuated by careless or hapless record keepers or decision makers upon the deceased individual... for an eternity.  But, this is where genealogists can really make a difference.  Perhaps it is the excitement of the chase that keeps many of us interested in pursuing family history, but it also has to do with an obsession to set things straight--to weave the various manuscripts, artifacts, and stories into an assemblance that makes sense, and that hopefully, corrects as many errors as possible.

So, as you continue to research, remember to always look for the unexpected, and to conduct as exhaustive a search as possible to answer your genealogical questions.  Your ancestors just may be depending on you to set the record straight!